Group hypnotherapy provides long-term benefits to patients with IBS

Gut-directed hypnotherapy in individual sessions has been shown in many studies to be an effective treatment for IBS. Now, for the first time, a randomised controlled study has demonstrated that group hypnotherapy can be just as effective as individual treatment, providing long-term relief from a range of IBS
symptoms and improving patient well-being.1 This, says Professor Gabriele Moser from the University Clinic for Internal Medicine in Vienna, Austria – and one of the study directors – could mean more patients having access to this effective and safe treatment option. Speaking to journalists at the 21st United European Gastroenterology Week (UEG Week) in Berlin, Germany, Prof. Moser said more specialist centres should now offer this treatment. “We have shown in our study that group hypnosis is an effective treatment option for IBS with no side effects,” she said. “Offering hypnosis in group sessions will save money and time for patients and caregivers, and should be made available to those with severe or treatment-resistant IBS.”

What is IBS?

IBS is a chronic, relapsing, and often life-long condition that is characterised by abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation. Between 5% and 20% of the population suffer from IBS, with more women than men affected. The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but most experts believe it is related to an increased sensitivity of the gut, which may be linked to a prior food-related illness in some people. Psychological factors such as stress may also play a role. Individuals with severe IBS have a reduced quality of life and up to 40% of those referred to hospital report avoiding everyday activities including social and work-related events.

Medical treatment options for IBS include the use of symptom-driven medications such as laxatives or anti-spasm treatments. Occasionally, antidepressants may be used. “The management of patients with IBS accounts for up to 25% of a gastroenterologist’s workload,” said Prof. Moser. “However, despite considerable efforts made by the pharmaceutical industry, the success of IBS drug development has been disappointing for patients and specialists alike.”

Gut-directed hypnotherapy

Gut-directed hypnotherapy was first tested as a treatment for IBS in the early 1980s by a group in Manchester, UK, who have gone on to publish many successful studies showing excellent long-term results. The technique itself involves a specially-trained therapist inducing a hypnotic state and then using imagery and suggestion to help the individual gain a sense of control over their gut function. A normal course of treatment consists of weekly sessions for around 10 to 12 weeks, with self-hypnosis practised at home.

According to Prof. Moser, studies with individual gut-directed hypnotherapy have confirmed that the treatment reduces IBS symptoms, improves quality of life and normalises gut sensitivity, while at the same time reversing the individual’s negative thoughts about their condition. The benefits of hypnotherapy have been shown to be greater than usual medical management, and the treatment is now recommended in several recent guidelines.

Group hypnotherapy study1

In Prof. Moser’s study, 90 patients with severe and/or incapacitating IBS symptoms who had
not responded to previous treatments were randomised to receive either gut-directed
hypnotherapy (10 weekly sessions of 45 minutes in groups of six) or supportive talks. Both
groups also received standard medical treatments for their IBS symptoms. After treatment,
61% of the patients who received hypnotherapy had improved compared with 41% of the
patients who received supportive talks; over 15 months, 54% of the hypnotherapy group were
still showing important clinical improvements compared with only 25% of the control group.

"In our study, the differences between treatment groups was seen from the fifth session of
treatment and continued until the 12-month follow-up assessment,” Prof. Moser told
journalists. “While hypnotherapy markedly reduced the severity of IBS symptoms, we found its
strongest effects were on daily activity, fatigue and the emotional aspects of IBS.”

Prof. Moser believes that this is the first study to demonstrate that group hypnotherapy is
effective in the treatment of patients with long-standing, treatment-resistant IBS. “Compared
with the results of randomised studies of individual hypnotherapy, group therapy seems to be
just as effective, with impressive long-term benefits,” she said. “This study is important for IBS
patients and carers because group sessions can save both money and time. The technique
can be applied by specially-trained licensed hypnotherapists and learnt by physicians,
psychologists and psychotherapists. I believe it should now be offered as an integrated
treatment option in specialist centres.”

1. Moser G, Trägner S, Gajowniczek et al. Long-term success of gut-directed group hypnosis for
patients with refractory irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Gastroenterol
2013; 108: 602–609.

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Next review: 21 March 2019